Witchblade: Volume 5
We're heading into the final arc of Witchblade, and the arrival of the penultimate volume signals a more serious turn to the story. Expect revelations to be revealed, plots to twist, and character relationships to be strained. From a studio that of late has been providing run of the mill futuristic by the numbers anime, Witchblade has been the one title to remind us of just why Gonzo are revered as the masters of action eye-candy. I've been enjoying this series far more than I ever expected to, although that has had the added effect of raising my expectations for the series conclusion. Let's hope that volume 5 sets things up in the right vein.
Witchblade is a comic book creation from Top Cow studios in the US, a slightly more mature title in the Dark Knight vein, which saw homicide detective Sara Pezzini come into possession of the Witchblade, a mystical gauntlet that bonds with its female owner, gifting her with tremendous powers and abilities. It's selective in who it chooses, a main priority being that the wielder has to look good naked, for when its powers are called upon, clothing vanishes to be replaced by a judiciously placed set of armour, grown organically from the gauntlet. Experts in action anime Gonzo have taken the Top Cow comic book and given it a Tokyo makeover, and for this new incarnation of the story, gone is Sara Pezzini, and in comes Masane Amaha, with an even scantier costume that would make sailors blush. Cleavage of all sorts abounds, jiggle is judiciously applied, and all in the name of the great goddess Fan Service, while beneath it all is a decent story, with interesting and well-written characters.
Set in the near future, the Witchblade has passed to a new owner, Masane Amaha. Six years previously, after the great earthquake had decimated Tokyo, Masane and her daughter Rihoko were found at the epicentre of the quake. Masane lost her memory, and all she had left was her daughter. When they return to the ruins of Tokyo to rebuild their home and start afresh, they find that the world is a far different place, as they have to avoid the attentions of the NSWF who are after the Witchblade, and its subsidiary Child Welfare Agency who have an interest in Rihoko. However, soon after Masane's abilities manifest, she's discovered by Douji Industries. Douji and NSWF were partners in researching the Witchblade six years ago, and Douji still think of the Witchblade as their property. They also feel obligated to clear up the mess that resulted from that catastrophe, including the release of dangerous killer X-Cons into the city, biomachines that the Witchblade is ideally suited to deal with. Douji winds up employing Masane, using her abilities, and keeping her away from the NSWF. It's just that the NSWF have made strides in replicating Witchblade technology for themselves…
Four more episodes of Witchblade are presented on this MVM disc. Volume 4 was a volume of truths revealed, with Masane finally learning something of her past, as well as the truth about Rihoko's parentage. Tozawa also learned just how depraved NSWF's head Furimizu is, as he discovered just where the Cloneblades come from. Prize Cloneblade Maria learned who she actually is, which will have ramifications down the line, and we finally learned what Masane looks like in a bikini.
Given what has been happening of late, it's understandable that Masane is devoting more and more of her time to Rihoko, although there comes a point where mothering becomes smothering. Even on a day out to the fair, Masane's fears of losing Rihoko to the Witchblade threaten to overwhelm. Tozawa continues his investigations into Furimizu, the 'Father' of the NSWF. The Cloneblade project seems to be his own personal eugenics programme, but what is motivating him in this? The answer lies with Furimizu's own mother, whose existence has been wiped from his personal history. Trouble looms at Douji for Takayama, as his time with Masane has distracted him from his rival Wadou. He returns to the boardroom in time to hear the announcement of Wadou's Ultimate Blade project, a weapon that can be wielded by either gender, and one that will transform the battlefield.
Takayama had thought they had accounted for all the X-Cons, but all of a sudden there is another murder scene to resolve. This time, the evidence points back to Douji industries, and when the press and police get an anonymous tip identifying Douji employees cleaning up the crime scenes, the writing is on the wall for Takayama. In full corporate tradition, he has to fall on his sword. Masane's been so busy lavishing love on Rihoko, that she doesn't realise what's going on until it is too late, and returns to Douji to unexpectedly meet her new boss, Wadou. Back at NSWF, Maria is unusually subdued. She's no longer throwing tantrums, no longer being selfish, and no longer slaughtering her sparring partners. The scientists monitoring her believe that it's a sign of her growing maturity, but the more she learns about her 'father' and the NSWF, the more she has to think about. Furimizu's thinking about the next generation of Sisters, and already sees Maria as an incubator, as well as turning his attention to Rihoko, daughter of Reina.
Masane has Rihoko's welfare in mind, when she bows to the inevitable, dons a business suit, and shows up at Wadou's office as his new secretary. Everyone is confused at this turn of events, especially Rihoko, who 'approved' of her mother's choice in Takayama. She keeps on denying it, but eventually she is convinced to pay Takayama a visit, to see if he could use some consoling. It's prelude to another row of course. Meanwhile Wadou's other new employee, Takayama's former aide Segawa is dropping a few manipulative hints. It's enough to spook Wadou into sending his own former aide, and new Ultimate Blade after Takayama, to see he stays permanently unemployed. When the Ultimate Blade runs into the Witchblade, it has an unexpected effect on Masane, one that has dire consequences. Meanwhile, Maria is looking to make some changes at the NSWF, and to do that, she needs to have a quiet word with Father.
Maria's now in control of the NSWF, and she's rearranging the furniture to her own specifications, bloodily. But the power that she has gained isn't enough for her. Her ascension also worries some people at the heart of the NSWF, as well as in Douji, and they decide that for a trump card, they need the Witchblade. Masane on the other hand has decided to go on a family date, just her, Rihoko and Takayama. She wants Rihoko to bond with Takayama, but things don't go perfectly. It gets worse when a powerful weapon attacks them on the way home. It tries to force the transferral of the Witchblade from Masane to Rihoko, and to fight back, Masane must finally reveal the truth of what she has become to her daughter.
If you are a hardcore Witchblade fan of old, you may be disappointed by this adaptation, as while the Witchblade itself is recognisable, the art and character design is very much Gonzo's own, with just a couple of concessions made to the original property. If you've seen a Gonzo action show of late, like Burst Angel or Trinity Blood, you'll be familiar with the look of the characters, the bright hazy feel to the animation, and the emphasis on eye candy and action. It's a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, and the image is clear and sharp for the most part, with just the usual digital banding and minor compression artefacts common with anime to note.
With Witchblade, you would expect fan service aplenty, and you wouldn't be disappointed. Masane has the sort of cleavage that keeps plastic surgeons in clover, and induces back problems in the real world, but in the animated world is shown off to generous advantage by the scanty nature of the Witchblade armour, as is her backside. What surprised me is how restrained it all was. This is no Battle Vixens, where the action slows down and even freeze frames to show off some enhanced female anatomy, Masane the character comes first, as does the story, and the Witchblade armour is treated as incidental to that. That isn't to say that the show doesn't cater to the teenage male demographic, but it's never gratuitous, and jiggle is left to a minimum. To quote Kenny Everett, "It's all done in the best possible taste!"
As usual for many an anime disc, you have DD 2.0 Japanese and DD 5.1 English to choose from, along with translated subtitles and signs. I chose the Japanese of course, the dialogue was clear, and there was sufficient stereo separation to render the action sequences with vibrancy. The surround is the soundtrack of choice in that respect, but the dub is unspectacular, if passable. What I sampled of it failed to impress me, with a rather workmanlike set of performances, and the perennial annoyance of a ten year old child sounding like a high pitched 30-year-old.
As ever you get the animated menus (with Maria looking a little naughty) and jacket picture, along with the textless songs for the second set of credit sequences, and trailers for Starship Operators and Black Lagoon.
The Witchblade Forged: Part 3 lasts 20 minutes, and the talking heads from Top Cow Comics return, this time to discuss the adaptation from comic to anime. They talk about the collaborative process with Gonzo, and the similarities and differences between comic and animation. They also mention a couple of things they had to veto. I had a slight problem with the audio in this section, and had to watch it with the surround turned off, and the sound coming through my TV alone. Otherwise it sounded as if the interviewees were speaking underwater.
Two interviews this time around, first with Kenichi Suzumura (Hiroki Segawa) at 8½ minutes, and the second with Shinji Ogawa (Tatsuoki Furimizu) at 8 minutes. Both are light, friendly affairs as they talk about their respective characters and the story.
Can I get away with saying 'more of the same' at this point? I really do feel as if I have said it all before when it comes to Witchblade, extolled its many virtues and made clear how I feel about this entertaining and well-made show. Volume 5 simply maintains that high standard. But I guess that I would be remiss if I didn't go beyond a simple rinse and repeat of my previous reviews.
Once again, I'm struck by the lack of fan service in these episodes. Let's face it, sex sells, and Witchblade hasn't been shy about it's teen male oriented nature, with scantily clad women, organic battlesuits that leave little to the imagination, and a central character whose pneumatic anatomy probably speaks of unresolved psychological issues on the part of the character designer. The DVD covers leave little to the imagination, and with the main menu on this disc perhaps the most risqué yet, with Maria in a Playboy coy pose, you'd be forgiven for expecting a wholly different show. Yet volume 5 manages to go through two episodes without once getting prurient, perverse, or even slightly saucy, which obviously means an absence of Witchblade and Cloneblade antics. And even when we do resume normal (fan) service in the second half of the disc, the story and plot is too engrossing to even marvel at the animator's ahem, proclivities. And Witchblade is none the weaker for it, quite the reverse actually.
It's as if the creators of the show decided to get all that nonsense out of the way early, while they were setting up the story and building the characters, knowing that by the time the show would be reaching its climax, viewers would be too hooked by the story to even care. And in terms of story and character, Witchblade has to be one of the best Gonzo productions in recent years. It's tightly written, well paced, and each of the storylines contributes to the whole. The characters are all rounded and interesting, and it all fits together like a complex jigsaw puzzle.
We're heading towards a conclusion now, and although it may not look it at times with some unexpected diversions, everything is building up the tension for the final volume. There are three distinct threads here, with the NSWF developments the most immediate. We learnt of the origins of the Cloneblade Sisterhood in the previous volume, but here we learn just why it is that 'Father' Furimizu has put this depraved pedigree breeding programme into effect. It's almost a cliché, but it boils down to unresolved issues with his mother, but how he deals with it is absolutely insane, which also explains the temperament of many of his progeny, especially Maria. It looks as if early on in this disc that his problems are behind him, especially when prize subject Maria appears to settle down and gets rid of the psychopathic tendencies that accounted for so many of her sisters. But Maria's psychopathy hasn't vanished; it's been turned to a more worthwhile goal, gaining power. Only power over the NSWF is unsatisfying. When Maria senses the Witchblade being used, she realises what she truly wants.
Meanwhile trouble looms at Douji industries, when Takayama's rival Wadou unveils the Ultimate Blade project. It appears as if Takayama has things under control when he points out that buyers won't want WMDs that are just as damaging to themselves as they are to opponents, but Wadou crosses the line, and leaks information about Douji's complicity with the X-Con attacks that leads to Takayama resigning. But Wadou's insecurities won't let him rest on his laurels. The chance of Takayama returning lead him order the assassination of his rival, and he moves to obtain the Witchblade for himself, with a far more malleable host than Masane.
And it all boils down to Masane in the end, who thinks that now she has Rihoko back, they can get back to a normal life. But ever since she learned that Rihoko is the ideal host for the Witchblade, she's been terrified of passing on the curse. Her love and protectiveness for her daughter becomes smothering and restrictive. She also has realised with what eventually happens to the Cloneblades that the Witchblade now limits her life. Its parasitic nature becomes clear; it feeds on the hosts' bloodlust in battle, and keeps on going until they are dead. She realises that Rihoko will need a parent, and who better than her natural father? Only her time may be running out sooner than she thinks, when she winds up facing an Ultimate Blade in battle. The weapon initially overwhelms her, and she winds up demanding more from the Witchblade than she has ever done before. It responds by taking her to a whole new level, but the price for the power has to be paid, and the first cracks appear in her armour. When Douji tries again, this time to prematurely transfer the Witchblade to Rihoko, it looks as if Masane's time is up. Which is where we're left on an infuriating cliffhanger.
Just one volume left now, and Gonzo have done a sterling job of setting up the scene for a hotly anticipated climax. With this good a series, it's all the more important that it gets the ending it deserves, so I'll be crossing all manner of digits in my eagerness. Witchblade is the best Gonzo series in ages. I can't recommend this enough.